For the past nine months, I have been wandering in my own sort of desert. Yes, I live in Phoenix, but that’s not what I mean. I have given the bulk of my professional career to what many call “vocational ministry.” I have served in some sort of paid capacity in three different churches in three different states and my two-fold theme has remained the same:
- No matter where you find yourself in your faith journey, may you be drawn closer to Jesus.
- Equip God’s people to do God’s work.
You might summarize this as helping people “love God and love people” and, though this can take on many different looks, it is more than enough to keep any local church busy until Kingdom Come. Literally.
Nine months ago, I resigned from ministry for personal reasons. The ensuing time has given me a different perspective on the Church in America and what we do and what we don’t do. Did you ever watch the show Monk, about an OCD private investigator played by Tony Shalhoub? There would often be a scene in which the police would be fumbling about the crime scene and Monk would enter the building and almost immediately see things the police didn’t. I know, I know, it’s a tired plot device used by Psych and countless others, but indulge me for a moment.
These private investigators enter the crime scene with a different perspective than the police. They are asking questions the police might not be asking. The past nine months out of vocational ministry have prompted me to ask questions, not just about how I am doing in ministry or how our local church is doing but how are WE are doing. By this, I mean the royal “we”, “the” Evangelical Church in America. And I’m left with more questions and concerns than ever.
One of the questions that has haunted me recently is why “we” are not more troubled by Christianity. David Dark has superbly summarized this question in The Sacredness of Questioning Everything:
Will we let the double-edged indictments of the scriptures cut us to the quick, creating problems in the lives we are living? Or will we enlist the words to serve only in our projects of self-congratulation, skipping the bits that question our beliefs and practices? Will we read the Bible only to reaffirm our beliefs and practices?
I worry that much of what passes for Christianity in America simply uses the Bible for affirmation and self-congratulation. Instead of submitting ourselves to the Spirit’s questioning of our lives, we use the Bible to simply affirm what we’re already doing.
How else can we explain the complacency of so many professing Christians? How else can we explain the prevalence of poverty in our midst; our acceptance of and participation in injustice? “Worship” gatherings that resemble rock concerts more than worship? Local churches who spend more money on buildings than widows and orphans? So many professing Christians chasing the American Dream of upward mobility and Suburban stability? How else could we be so sure that God supports our political agenda except that we’ve stopped listening?
The list goes on and is equally directed at me. I include myself in tis indictment. But it is an indictment nonetheless. There is certainly assurance to be found in following Jesus. But what if we’re sure about the wrong things? The message of Jesus should cause us to question ourselves more than we do. It should cause us to squirm and perhaps sweat a bit. Though there are many angles through which to view this issue, I want to focus today on the broad notion of social justice.
After all, Jesus is pretty clear about what He expects of His people: love people, even (especially?) your enemies. Share your stuff. Practice forgiveness and practice reconciliation. Look out for those who can’t look out for themselves, especially children. If you say you love Jesus, do these things. It’s that simple. And yet, for some reason, we believe it is not. We say it’s more complicated than that with the result that we do very little except assure others that God is on our side.
How well are “we” doing at the things Jesus says mark His people? Are we pursuing peace through meekness? Are we sacrificially caring for others, even those we don’t like? Are we pursuing reconciliation or taking partisan sides?
Francis of Assisi is credited with trolling Reformed Christians with the saying (even though it is likely he never said any such thing):
Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.
My Reformed friends immediately point out that the Gospel is “good news” and that it must be articulated in words or it is not the Gospel. Yeah, yeah, I get it. But Francis is certainly in line with Jesus Himself who told us to live lives of light so that those around us might glorify God (Matthew 5:16) and I worry that, while we argue about the articulation of the Good News of Jesus, we fail at its demonstration. We argue with one another’s proclamation while few of us actually do anything with it. Why else is the call to live “radical” lives for Jesus so prominent except that we are simply swallowed by the mundane and even vain expressions of faith in commercialism masked with spirituality?
When we sit under God’s Word rather than over it, we should be deeply unsettled. We should be willing to question our lives. Do they match Jesus’ descriptions of His people? More and more, I’m worried that my life does not. More and more, I’m worried that we have lost our witness in America simply because we don’t do the things that are expected of us (no, our actions do not merit our salvation but they are certainly not negotiable).
And I am not alone. Lest you think I’m just alarmistly promoting a “social gospel,” Stephen Colbert calls us to the carpet quite directly:
“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
How in the world can we write off such sentiments so quickly? Do we have the ears to hear what Jesus expects? How in the world can we pursue lives of comfort when Jesus calls us to sacrifice?
I am convicted that it’s been far too long since I’ve been deeply unsettled by the call of Jesus to give up everything (maybe even literally) and follow Him. Truth be told, our lives are our primary apologetic. We can use words, but if we don’t live it, we must question whether or not we actually believe what we’re saying. Can we say we love Jesus and not love others?
Lord, wake us from our slumber. Remind us once again that forgiveness breeds forgiveness. Convict us once more that they will know we are yours, not by our political affiliation or the family-friendly movies we watch and “uplifting” radio we listen to but by our love.
Unsettle us. And move us to action.
There is work to be done.